First, the facts: Sounding like Garrison Keillor doing an impression of Robert De Niro as Al Capone, we now have audiotape of former New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams telling his team to intentionally maim their playoff opponents, the San Francisco 49ers. Recorded without his knowledge, Williams is heard saying, "We’ve got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill [49er running back] Frank Gore’s head.” Of quarterback Alex Smith, he says, "Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head." Williams was already serving an indefinite suspension issued by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for placing bounties on players from opposing teams.
Documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released the damning audio, recording Williams during the process of following former Saint Steve Gleason who is suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Gleason was supposed to have say over what Pamphilon recorded and made public, and said that he was "deflated and disappointed" that Pamphilon released the audio without his approval.
Pamphilon also released the audio the day before Saints Head Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis and Assistant Coach Joe Vitt were to appear before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an effort to get their own Gregg Williams/bounty related suspensions reduced.
In a statement, Pamphilon said,
If this story hadn’t broken and been made public, I would not have shared this. I would not have compromised my personal relationships and risked damaging Steve Gleason’s relationship with the Saints. I would have crafted these words and sentiments for another forum, perhaps years down the road. …If it weren’t for the fact I feel deeply that parents of children playing football MUST pay attention to the influence of men who will sacrifice their kids for W’s, I would not have written this. …Some will call me releasing this audio for fame or money grab. True haters will call it exploitation. People of character and conscience call it was it is: true.
Those are facts. Now some opinion: color me very skeptical of this entire story. I’m skeptical of the timing of the audio being released the day before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt plead for mercy to try and salvage their 2012 season. I’m skeptical of the media outrage roiling from coast to coast. And most of all, I’m deeply skeptical of Roger Goodell.
Imagine if we had audio of all thirty-two NFL locker rooms. Imagine how our stomachs would turn at the way grown men are riled into fits of violence for our collective entertainment. To think that this kind of language is in New Orleans alone is to live in a demented kind of denial. Over the last month, I’ve spoken with former and current NFL players — on and off the record — who say the same. Many of Williams’s former players swear by him. Many other players shrug their shoulders and say variants of, “This is the life we have chosen.” It’s a violent game where violent words are used to compel violent deeds. To pretend otherwise, is to play the fool.
In addition, I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motives, but it’s very difficult to not look at Mr. Pamphilon with anything but deep suspicion. It’s not his self-serving statement where he seems to see himself as some cross between Michael Moore and Karen Silkwood. It’s not the Linda Tripp move of releasing the audio of someone who didn’t know he was being recorded. It’s not even the fact that he consciously abused the trust of the ALS suffering Steve Gleason, which just feels scummy. It’s the fact that Mr. Pamphilon, a mainstream documentarian who directed one of the acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30 films, chooses to drop this bomb right before Payton, Loomis, and Vitt’s appeal. If he wanted optimum damage aimed at further boosting Goodell’s public image as Wyatt Earp of a lawless Saints franchise, he couldn’t have picked a better moment to develop a conscience.
In the end, it all comes back around to Roger Goodell and his motives. Yes, Gregg Williams’ language and coaching "instructions" are contemptible. Yes, he is now officially radioactive and will probably never work again. Payton might also now be unemployable, at least with the Saints. But if Goodell were serious about stopping bounties and violent directives that precede violent deeds, then every team would be investigated. Dozens of coaches would be suspended. Every week for the next several years would bring more revelations about the violence and rot that exists beneath the three hours of highly commodified violence we enjoy every Sunday. If Goodell were serious about making the league safer, he would finally abandon his fierce efforts for a longer eighteen game season. He’d improve the access to medical care for retired players. He’d settle amicably with the more than 1,000 former NFL players seeking redress for head injuries endured while playing the game. But he doesn’t because it’s far easier to have the Saints be exampled and take the weight for the entire league. Goodell isn’t so much Wyatt Earp as he is Game of Thrones’ King Joffrey: vicious, callow, and in the most profound sense, a hypocrite. This is not about changing the lucrative status quo. It’s about preserving it and having the Saints carry the sins of an entire league.